(Editor’s note: With training camp approaching, Pistons.com continues a series that examines the questions they must confront in their quest to turn the corner on general manager Troy Weaver’s restoration of the franchise to greatness. Today’s question: How prominent a role can Ausar Thompson earn as his rookie season unfolds?)
If Ausar Thompson had arrived in Detroit at any previous point of the rebuilding launched in 2020, there would be little to zero question about whether he’d be in the opening night starting lineup. He surely would have been in 2020 and ’21 and likely a year ago, too.
But this year? Only if the rookie makes it almost impossible to ignore him.
And based on everything general manager Troy Weaver and his cabinet believed about him prior to the draft, affirmed and then some by what they saw from him in Las Vegas Summer League, it’s entirely possible Thompson will do just that.
The Pistons don’t have anyone quite like him – and that puts them in the company of most other NBA teams. Thompson, 20, is a solidly chiseled 215 pounds on a 6-foot-7 frame with long arms, a 7-foot wingspan and athleticism rightly described as elite even in the 1 percent world of NBA athletes.
At Summer League, where he was one of only two players who played at least three games to average a double-double, Thompson flashed his defensive instincts to muck up passing lanes and block shots; displayed a keen nose for the ball as a rebounder at both ends; flashed consistently as a transition scoring threat; and raised eyebrows with his vision and pinpoint accuracy as a passer.
He averaged 13.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.8 blocked shots in 29 minutes a game. When Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren and James Wiseman sat after the first two games, Thompson’s scoring increased but so did his efficiency.
All of those things – the defense, the rebounding, the transition athleticism, the passing – argue strongly for Thompson’s inclusion in any lineup, starting or otherwise. Putting him next to Cade Cunningham and Ivey would give the Pistons an electric young perimeter cohort and allow Cunningham and Ivey to take more favorable defensive matchups while employing Thompson’s defense on the opposition’s top perimeter playmaker.
But incoming coach Monty Williams has to look at the even bigger picture. The only yellow flag on Thompson’s scouting report is his work-in-progress 3-point shot. He hit 30 percent from three last season at Overtime Elite, a neophyte training ground for prospects who eschew college basketball, though stepped that up to 35 percent in the playoffs.
Cunningham is quite clearly the central figure of the Pistons offensively and it’s accepted wisdom that it will be instrumental to surround him with good shooters. But it’s a leap from that to concluding only above-average 3-point shooters surrounding Cunningham will maximize the best of him and it will fall to Williams to strike the right balance between shooting and all of the other complementary skills that make up a cohesive lineup.
Whether Thompson starts or not, of course, is hardly the most relevant question regarding his long-term role. The 3-point shooting might determine whether Thompson becomes an All-Star or a role player down the road, but he’s got enough other tools – as a passer, a transition force, a rebounder, a cutter – to make himself a net-plus on the offensive end. And if he can do that, it allows his defensive prowess to give the Pistons a major jolt at the end of the floor that Weaver and Williams both identify as the area where they must establish a foothold.
If Thompson’s impact is such that Williams decides he needs to be on the floor more often than not, then it could have ripple effects up and down the rotation. If Thompson starts and his Summer League rebounding proves sustainable, maybe the Pistons can consider lineups with Isaiah Stewart at center with Thompson and Bojan Bogdanovic or Isaiah Livers at forward that would alleviate concerns about a lack of 3-point shooting.
Thompson would seem an easy fit for a second unit likely to feature such proven 3-point firepower as Alec Burks, Joe Harris, Monte Morris and Livers. And when the Pistons are protecting a lead in the final five minutes, Thompson’s defense might make him a staple of closing units.
It’s always advisable to take Summer League performances with a grain of salt, but Thompson’s ability to make across-the-board impact and do it four games out of four seems a trustworthy indicator of his NBA future. The Pistons, light years down the road from where they were on the rebuilding timeline three years ago, don’t need him to make his mark immediately in order to take the significant step forward they expect of themselves this season.
But Ausar Thompson might be good enough to leave them no doubt about his ability to be a driving force in taking that significant step forward.